My commenter Chuckie D. is none too happy with George Foster’s phrase, “"cognitive orientation" - as he says, what does that even mean? Myself, I obviously have a different take – which is why I introduced Kant’s essay on orientation as a fundamental indication of the subject’s effect in the world – for Kant, the way human’s orient themselves can’t be explained by the Lockean/Newtonian sensualists of the time. Foster spends some time on the question of the meaning of cognitive orientation, all of which is theoretically interesting – but not too much. Foster is not important for his work in theorizing attitudes, but, rather, for his description of a particular set of attitudes that are related to peasant life.
As I have been saying for the past year, it is impossible to understand the emergence of a happiness norm that governs not only one’s personal affective life, but that is, somehow, a collective social ideal and justification for political and economic arrangements without looking at the structure of the early modern political economy in Europe. My crude position was that the class immobility that had been the political ideal began to fragment in the 17th century. But why? Certainly the industrial system had not been put in place, nor do we see the hallmark of capitalism, which is a labor force mobilized by capital. Yet something is happening in the ‘classical age.’ It is something that changed Europe massively, yet has been weirdly underplayed among historians of Europe's intellectual history. It was called the discovery of the New World. Discovery, colonization, exploitation - these, I think, opened up the rigid hierarchies in the European economies. I think one of the factors that come into play, here, has to do with what Foster calls the limited good. Foster does not invoke Malthus, but surely the notion that goods are limited, so that to have a good requires that someone else not have that good – the zero sum sense of wealth – would be a rational response to a society in which the Malthusian limits were tight and visible – a society, for instance, in which famine was an ever present possibility.
I find the connection that Foster makes between the limit good, luck, and a certain image of wealth – wealth as treasure – to be highly suggestive. Foster came to his theory through his field work in Tzintzuntzan. He found it interesting that the peasants in this Mexican village divorced wealth from labor – wealth came from the outside, in the form of treasure. According to Foster, the idea of economic growth that underlines the capitalist ethos just doesn’t penetrate this world: “In fact, it seems accurate to say that the average peasant sees little or no : relationship between work and production techniques on the one hand, and: the acquisition of wealth on the other. Rather, wealth is seen by villagers in the same light as land: present, circumscribed by absolute limits, and having no relationship to work. One works to eat, but not to create wealth.”
It is at this point that the attack on superstition gains its salience. The attack on superstition is an attempt to change the behaviors that group around the limited good. Without changing those behaviors, the project of modernization - the mobilisation of labor, the industrial system, the genesis of this myth called the market - wouldn't have occurred.
Foster points out that the limited good system changes if it opens up – a very important point for anyone trying to assess the affect of the colonization of the Americas and the East Indian trade on Europe:
“I have said that in a society ruled by the Image of Limited Good there 'is no way, save at the expense of others, that an individual can get ahead. This is true in a closed system, which peasant communities approximate. But even a traditional peasant village, in another sense, has access to other systems, and an individual can achieve economic success by tapping sources of wealth that are recognized to exist outside the village system. Such success, though envjed, is not seen as a direct threat to community stability, for no one within the community has lost anything. Still, such success must be explained. In today's transitional peasant communities, seasonal emigration for wage labor is the most available way in which one can tap outside wealth. Hundreds of thousands of Mexican peasants have come to the United States as braceros in recent years and many, through their earnings, have pumped significant amounts of capital into their communities. Braceros generally are not criticized or attacked for acquisition of this wealth; it is clear that their good fortune is not at the direct expense of others within the village. Fuller finds a similar realistic appraisal of the wealth situation in a Lebanese community: "they [the peasants] realize . . . that the only method of increasing their incomes on a large scale is to absent themselves from the village for an extended period of time and to find work in more lucrative areas" (1961:72).
These examples, however, are but modern variants of a much older pattern in which luck and fate—points of contact with an open systen—are viewed as the only socially acceptable ways in which an individual can acquire more "good" than he previously has had. In traditional (not transitional) peasant communities an otherwise inexplicable increase in wealth is often seen as due to the discovery of treasure which may be the result of fate or of such positive action as making a pact with the Devil. Recently I have analyzed treasure tales in Tzintzuntzan and have found without exception they are attached to named individuals who, within living memory, have suddenly begun to live beyond their means. The usual evidence is that they suddenly opened stores, in spite of their known previous poverty (Foster 1964a). Erasmus has recorded this interpretation among Sonora villagers (1961:251), Wagley finds it in an Amazon small town (1964:128), and Friedmann reports it in southern Italy (1958:21). Clearly, the role of treasure tales in communities like these is to account for wealth that can be explained in no other manner.”